Dr John Solomon – Looking at Identity and Transnational Communities

What drove you to specialize in history?

I took history modules because I was interested in the specific subjects that I was studying, and not because I saw myself majoring in History. Initially, I wanted to major in Philosophy, but I just ended up taking more history modules because I was interested in the specific topics covered in those modules. However, as time went by in university, I ended up taking more history modules and became history major.

I’m interested in history as well because I like how it tells a long human story. Other disciplines may be focused on looking at our world and our society from one angle, but history takes a multi-faceted approach to it.

I enjoy the fact that I get to understand myself, my society, and my world from a multifaceted kind of point of view in how different things interact – culture, the environment, politics. Since individual human lives are short, it’s nice to see connections across a long span of time and also how transient everything can be.

Where do your research interests lie? Could you share with us your proudest moment in this journey?

Right now, I’m looking at the idea of citizenship during the colonization of Malaya. I’m looking at how people understood the concept of nationality at a time when borders were only coming up. People had to think about passports and mobility whereas previously, they might have been able to travel across the empire relatively freely. During decolonization, they had to make choices about where they were going to be. It is interesting to study how legal decisions were communicated to ordinary people, how they tried to understand and make sense of them, and how that affected their identities later on.

What were some difficulties you’ve faced in your research?

I’ve had one book about the history of an untouchable community who moved from South India to Malaysia and Singapore. The difficulty I had while researching that was trying to find interviewees. For various reasons, successive generations have undergone a process of erasure where they have consciously lost their class identity, and they haven’t told their children about it. Some people are reluctant to talk about it out of fear of continuing stigma. That was one difficulty I faced – trying to find a history of a historically submerged community that has disappeared and blended into a broader community by choice.

Were there any findings that surprised you?

In one aspect of my research projects, I was looking at the Japanese occupation and the varied experiences it was for many individuals through their oral histories. You have people who don’t really remember it through the trope of suffering. They remember it as a time of great unity, and as a time when women had a lot of rights. If you’re an Indian woman, for example, and you’re being sent off to military training, you were suddenly allowed into public life in ways that would have been unimaginable before.

How have your research interests changed over time?

It’s slowly shifted over time. When I was an undergraduate, I was very interested in genocides. I was interested in understanding how ordinary people can commit acts of brutality under different circumstances. When I did my own research in my Honours year, I became interested in how knowledge is constructed. I looked at missionary and representations in the 19th century and how that shaped ideas of race. Slowly, my research shifted from India to Singapore and Malaya through migration routes. Then I started researching more about Malaysia, Malaya and Singapore instead. The questions have changed as well – I’m more interested in broader themes of identity and how transnational communities have a sense of themselves.

There’s this practical aspect where people are afraid to take History because of the career uncertainty in the future. What’s your opinion about that?

I don’t think that’s an issue in Singapore. There are plenty of employment opportunities for history graduates in Singapore depending on what you want to be. I mean, if you want to be a chemical engineer, then don’t do History. However, if you enjoy History and the general sorts of occupations that history graduates find themselves in, go into it. You’re never really sure what you are going to do after university anyway.

Do you have any general advice for the current freshmen, especially for those who might still be unsure of whether to pursue History?

Don’t do something that you can’t stand. Do something that interests you and that you feel gives you personal growth. It’s rational and normal to have concerns about the future, so be prudent about that as well. However, don’t do something just because of a future goal to the point where you’re no longer enjoying university because that would be a waste.

INFORMAL QUESTIONS

What is your favourite book and who is your favourite author?

One of my favourite authors is George Orwell. I also like Salman Rushdie. I really enjoyed reading his Midnight’s Children and Satanic Verses.

What’s is something you will put on your bucket list?

I want to see Antarctica.

What genres of music do you like the most?

I like psychedelic rock, post-rock and various kinds of metal.

What’s your least favourite beverage?

Most sugary carbonated drinks, but amongst all of these, Dr Pepper.

Lastly, could you describe your personal motto?

I want to gain as much varied experience in my life as possible.

Thank you so much for the interview.

*Parts of the interview have been edited for clarity

Associate Professor Timothy Barnard – From Biologist to Historian

What drove you to specialize in history?

I have always been curious about a variety of things. As an undergraduate, I was not a History major. I majored in Biology and Anthropology. I’ve always just been very curious about everything, and I eventually realized that with history, I can learn about many topics. I can study the environment, culture, societies, politics, economics – anything, but in the past.

History thus gave me the opportunity to explore a lot of different things in one discipline. It’s both multidisciplinary and a discipline. Ultimately, what I best like about it is that it allows me to go down different little rabbit holes and explore different things.

Where do your research interests lie? Could you share with us your proudest moment in this journey?

My research is rooted in Southeast Asia, mainly the Straits of Malacca areas – Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula and Singapore – that is geographically where I do almost all of my work. Within that geographic space, I began as a young researcher focusing on societies and developments in different kingdoms or polities in the early modern period. I have since then expanded out to conduct research on film in Singapore in the 1950s and am currently doing a lot of things on Singaporean environmental history.

Of my recent work on environmental history, I’m interested in using the same traditional sources we have for Singapore such as archival newspapers, but asking different questions about them. For example, how did our environment and biodiversity change because of the arrival of imperialism? Therefore, it’s not about great men, politics and “Oh, they had a meeting about this”, but it’s about what happened to the plants and animals in Singapore because of the arrival of colonial powers. Think of it this way: I’m still studying imperialism, but I’m just asking different questions.

As for a proudest moment, I don’t think of it in that way. I enjoy exploring different topics, and asking questions from that material to better understand where I live. It is a day-to-day process, a continual journey.

Could you describe a surprising moment you had during your research?

One thing I’ve found becoming a central point in a lot of my recent writing is the extent of deforestation in Singapore in the 19th century. For example, in the first 50 to 60 years of colonial rule, Singapore basically went from being forest-covered to being completely deforested. In 60 years, 92% of the original forest was cut down and replaced with lalang, and that had a lot of effects on the society – Where do we get our water from? How do we get the building materials for houses? It created a lot of different issues that the government had to deal with and affected the development of the society. This one issue gave rise to the development of central catchment areas, water policies, and the way society developed.

How has your research interests changed over time?

A lot of it has been affected by where I live and what I do. My original research in Sumatran kingdoms came out of living in Sumatra. After I got my undergraduate degree, I lived in the province of Riau in Sumatra, and I just became interested in the place and wanted to learn more about it.

I moved to Singapore 20 years ago, and shifted a bit more toward Singapore, and this came out of living here. For instance, I saw old Malay films on TV and I couldn’t find any information about them – and so I wrote about them.

The same is true with my work on environmental history. I’ve always been interested in biodiversity because of my biology background. One of the earliest modules I created after my arrival at NUS was one on environmental history. Once I began teaching it, however, I became frustrated in the fact that there were few resources about Singapore to assign and, out of my own frustration, I decided to write some myself.

Do you have any general advice for the current freshmen, especially for those who might still be unsure of whether to pursue History?

My number one bit of advice is to study what interests you. Others may emphasize studying STEM subjects or subjects which will get you a good job. In the modern economy, however, what will get you a good job is passion. If you do not have a passion or an interest in what you study, it will become very apparent.

If you find the study of History interesting, please study it, and embrace it. If you find Economics more interesting, however, go to Economics. That’s fine. There will always be ups and downs in your studies, and what will push you through the low times is your own curiosity and interest. If you study something you don’t care about, you ultimately will get jobs that you don’t enjoy, and you will spend the rest of your life in misery.

Now, wouldn’t you rather study something that drives you and motivates you? In the modern economy, it’s not about your specific major because you’re going to change jobs and shift where you are numerous times. The basic skills that will give you that are not in your degree. It’s the ability to write well, to think and to be flexible.

Choose a major you care about and, once you do, go all in. 

INFORMAL QUESTIONS

What is your favourite book and who is your favourite author?

I tend to read historical narrative books for pleasure. For example, right now I’m reading about the transit of Venus in 1761 to 1769 – how scientists measured Venus against the sun and how this helped create precise readings about where we are and the size of the solar system. 

When it comes to novels, my answers are standard ones – everything from Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird or Catch-22 were among my favourites when I was younger – but I tend to read history works which highlight a specific event or development at the time now.

What’s is something you will put on your bucket list?

I don’t really have a bucket list. When I have something I’m interested in doing, I do it. I tend to travel a lot overseas though… Maybe visit Antarctica.

Who is your favourite cartoon character?

Foghorn Leghorn.

What genres of music do you like the most?

Probably 80s pop.

What’s your least favourite beverage?

Anything that has sugar. I like Coke zero sugar, but not normal Coke. I also like my coffee kosong.

If you could add one word to the English dictionary, what would it be?

Chope.

Lastly, could you describe your personal motto?

Only complain once you’ve completed the job.

Thank you so much for the interview.

*Parts of the interview have been edited for clarity.

 

Dr Donna Brunero – My Story As A Maritime Historian

Dr Brunero.jpg

What drove you to specialize in history?

As an undergrad, I was really passionate about history, and it was something that I enjoyed the most out of all the subjects that I’ve studied. And that’s what really led me to want to do more in terms of studying history.

Did you consider other disciplines?

I had thought I’d be a literature major when I went to university. I was studying literature but I was also taking history classes – and I just fell in love with the subject.

I really enjoyed history modules at university level. From there, I think that’s what set me on the path to being a historian. As an undergrad, I did what was the equivalent of a summer scholarship at an interstate university, and that for me was quite an eye opener (it is like doing an Independent Study Module, but as a scholarship holder). I worked with just one professor on a project over the summer break, and that, as an undergrad, was a great experience as I had a better sense of what historians do, what they talk about. I was also exposed to different types of scholarship. So that’s what really got me interested in History. And a fellowship in Greenwich at the Maritime Museum turned me to the maritime realm and it’s been very rewarding.

Where do your research interests lie? Could you share with us your proudest moment in this journey?

My research covers the areas of maritime history and imperial history and I am most interested in exploring the intersections of the two. One of my main approaches has been through the maritime world of Asia, and to view this world via the British empire. The shaping of colonial port cities fascinates me, so too the semi-imperial worlds of the treaty ports of East Asia.

Proudest moment? That is a tough question! I’ve had some, and hope there are more to come! One was viewing the ‘An Old New World’ exhibition at the National Museum and realising that my conversations with the curators (and having a curator attend my port cities class) had been  influential in how they shaped some aspects of the exhibition.

One of the most interesting moments was (many years ago) interviewing an elderly woman who grew up in China’s treaty ports (in fact spending her first 40 years in China). She was from a British and French family, and she grew up in China because her family worked for the Chinese Maritime Customs service, and so when I interviewed her she spent the first part of the interview trying to figure out where I fit on the China coast because she said that she didn’t recognise my surname, so she had a really strong sense of their being a community among the families of the China coast.  I guess one of the things that I’ve been happiest about is that, many years later,  I’m still in contact  with her family. Her son who is now in his 80s by this point corresponds with me. He likes to check in on what I’m doing. It is really fulfilling when there’s a personal dimension to my research.

What were some difficulties you’ve faced in your research?

I think there are always difficulties when you’re undertaking research, whether it’s the nature of the research itself, whether it is having confidence to work on a particular project or particular topic, and even just grappling with the material. I recall, when I first started out, my supervisor used to just send me to the archives and say, “don’t worry, the topic will leap out at you,” and I just kept waiting for it to leap! (And really hoping I’d find an angle for my work).  So it was finding that sort of inspiration or being able to work your way in through the materials, I think, that was one of the biggest challenges.

Do you have any general advice for the current freshmen, especially for those who might still be unsure of whether to pursue History?

I would say that it’s worthwhile taking some history modules to get a sense of the different types of History being offered in NUS and realising that it is quite different from what you’ve done at school and at Junior College. And then it is good to know that the skills that you are developing as a historian, the craft of the historian, can be applied across many different contexts. I think that’s one of the things that’s exciting about history – in terms of learning to think very critically about sources and how knowledge is created. Once you start doing this, you begin to ask really interesting questions…So if you’re thinking about studying history, this might be one reason to at least consider taking some modules.

There’s this practical aspect where people are afraid to take History because of the career uncertainty in the future. What’s your opinion about that?

There is always the tension between being concerned about getting a job at the end of the day, and studying what really interests you. One thing is if you follow your passion, you’ll find a way. That’s one way of looking at it and I believe that that’s the case. You’re not trapped into just one or two particular career paths, if that makes sense, because I meet a lot of our former graduates who are working in many different sectors across government, some of them working for, say the Port Authority or as journalists. So really you can actually go on and do quite different jobs, and I think part of it is the foundation that you have in terms of the research writing and the critical thinking skills that in many ways lends itself to different areas.

INFORMAL QUESTIONS

What is your favourite book and who is your favourite author?

If we’re looking at academic scholarship, I really like to read the work of Robert Bickers because he gives a human dimension to life in China. His book Empire Made Me is well worth a read! And the work of Philippa Levine on gender and the British empire is really very inspiring.

If it is fiction…then I read all sorts of genres. I was reading Game of Thrones, ave been delving into Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander series, and have moved on to an Italian detective series for fun…

What’s is something you will put on your bucket list?

I had playing the flute on my bucket list, but I’ve already started to learn, so that one is moved off the bucket list… I think I want to travel on a container ship because I’m studying the maritime side of things. I’ve been invited a few times to go onto container ships, but I would actually like to voyage on a container ship from one port to another. I’m just curious about life at sea in these big ships…That’s on my bucket list.

Who is your favourite cartoon character?

Phineas and Ferb’s Perry the Platypus. He doesn’t speak, but I like what he gets up to. And it’s nice to see and Australian animal fighting an evil scientist.

What genres of music do you like the most?

I like jazz and classical, but I would listen to anything.

What’s your least favourite beverage?

I’m not keen on anything that’s really sweet. I am a kosong kind of person. I have to admit – I’m not a fan of bubble tea. It’s not that I haven’t tried it, but it wasn’t something I’d go out to buy.

If you could teleport to anywhere in the world, where would it be?

If I could teleport anywhere, I would probably go to Europe to some sightseeing, or to pop over to Australia to visit my family!

If you could add one word to the English dictionary, what would it be?

I do like this Singlish word – “Agaration”.

Lastly, could you describe your personal motto?

This is tough. I guess…

We’re all a work in progress. And in scholarship and in life, it’s important to take time to enjoy the journey!

Thank you so much for the interview.

*Parts of the interview have been edited for clarity

Annual General Meeting AY18/19

On the evening of 31 August, HISSOC held its Annual General Meeting (AGM) for AY18/19. The cycle comes full circle as the 53rd Executive Committee hands over the mantle to the 54th to carry HISSOC to new heights!

Edited-00232
What AGM would be complete without a buffet dinner first?

Edited-00306
Everyone gathered, and the secretaries are ready to take minutes

Edited-00314
Thanks to Samuel Chong for returning as our Chair for the meeting once more

Edited-00317
So it begins!

Edited-00331
Outgoing President Gabriel delivers his closing address

The meeting begins with an update on the financial status of HISSOC as well as the outgoing President’s closing address. Then comes the EXCO elections!

Edited-00351
Dr. Solomon and A/P Lockhart sitting in for the AGM

Edited-00368Edited-00378Edited-00387Edited-00391Edited-00396Edited-00403Edited-00404Edited-00407Edited-00417Edited-00424Edited-00429Edited-00436Edited-00442

Edited-00454-2
Presenting HISSOC’s 54th Executive Committee!

Edited-00455-2
Like what Gabriel mentioned in his speech, a sunset for one EXCO, and a sunrise for another

Thanks to all for attending the AGM and let’s all give our support to the new EXCO!

Welcome Tea AY18/19

HISSOC had its Welcome Tea for the students of the HY and EU community this morning, right after the lecture for HY1101E. There were cakes and pizza for everyone to eat and mingle. Professors and seniors alike also came down to partake in the refreshments and chat as well.

20180829_114134
Pandan chiffon cakes are great!

20180829_114152
After a slight shift in venue, the Welcome Tea was held at the benches near the AS1 lockers, just a short walk away from LT9 and LT10

WhatsApp Image 2018-08-29 at 21.51.46
Enjoying the food!

Thanks to everyone who came to our Welcome Tea today! Hope you were able to eat and chat with fellow members of the HY/EU community and learn about HISSOC as well. We hope to see you at our Annual General Meeting this Friday!